Seeking Balance: Setting Goals vs Expectations

Over and over, I find that I am my own biggest roadblock to productivity and success.  Technically, this is great; as long as I overcome my hindering tendencies, BAM! – I’m basically guaranteed to reach my goals.  On a daily basis though, grinding trails through the mountain range of my defensive mechanisms, it feels discouraging.  I’ll make progress, only to relapse at the smallest shift in my environment.  Am I the only one who hasn’t figured this out yet?


Me in a giant hollow tree; because in between attacks of thoughtful seriousness, I am silly.

Latest example: last week I spent three lovely afternoons listening to April Bowles‘s “Build a Successful Creative Blog” course on CreativeLive.  I enjoyed it, a lot.  The content was pertinent and educational, and the presentation friendly and up-lifting.  April delved into a number of blogging aspects that I’m still too inexperienced to have a grasp on: how to identify your ideal reader; how to figure out your preferred communication formats; how to stick to writing about the things you care about; how to use your best voice and convey energy.  (For anyone interested, CreativeLive will be re-running a free broadcast of the course on May 31st-June 1st).

You’d think that hearing all the suggestions would fuel my determination.  That learning a concrete approach for blogging would empower me to produce with abandon.  Instead, it planted a hedgerow of self-doubt smack in the middle of my writing routine.

I don’t know how it manages, but my brain took all of the good suggestions from April’s podcast and wove them into a big shiny vision of the IDEAL BLOG (a magical land where great photographs roam amidst pages of engaging content; where readers can’t wait to consume my thoughts for breakfast; where each sentence offers a fresh pastry of companionship, stuffed with helpfulness and dusted with humor).  Alive, awake and arrogant, the Ideal Blog smugly settled on a pedestal of “attainable only in your dreams” and began smirking down at me: “You dare. to aspire. to ME?”

And I do, I do dare.  Except that its blinding glory is fearsome.  It makes everything I achieve right now seem inadequate.  Any effort of mine, when compared to this ideal, falls short (no duh).  A weird loop of negative reinforcement festers: I’m able to predict that my next attempt won’t reach perfection either.  I expect failure before I’ve even started – and sure enough, the result isn’t perfection.  A suspicion creeps in that I’ll have to fail for YEARS before reaping any rewards (even such basic ones as feeling good and confident about the way I choose to spend my hours).  If that’s the case, how can I tell if I’m wasting my time?  What if it turns out that I’m not as worthy as I hope to discover myself to be?

Thus the fear of defeat grows and grows; it looms and paralyzes.  It makes those first steps towards progress terrifying to take.  It assures that the sparkly and lofty IDEAL stays unreachable.  (It gives me writer’s block!)  All in all, it’s a rotten way to let myself think.

I’ve actually learned how to beat this in myself, but it will probably take me years of practice before the solution becomes a neutralizing patch, my second nature.  Last summer, I reluctantly let my husband train me up for a half-marathon.  I started out suffering.  Not because of physical pain (though it was present in one way or another during every run), but because every single run was a mental battle against the fear of failure.

For instance, I’d set a goal of running one mile.  And without realizing, I’d set these ridiculous expectation for myself: you must go the full mile regardless of how you feel; you must run a mile in 12 minutes or less; you must have an easier time today than yesterday; you must not experience pain; you must feel so comfortable running that you’re able to focus on thoughts other than “breathe, step, step; breathe, step, step”; OR ELSE YOU’RE FAILING.

Guess how many times, by these expectations, I “succeeded” at running?  Like, 7 maybe, out of MONTHS of training.  I understood that with that kind of suffering, I couldn’t sustain it, couldn’t handle increasing the distance and duration of the runs.  So very slowly, and very clumsily, I taught myself a healthier way to manage expectations.


In the beginning, one of the days of consistent suffering.

The trick, I discovered, had two parts to it.  First, separate the GOAL from the EXPECTATIONS.  The goal should be the achievable horizon – within your reach, a desirable future, but more of a general suggestion than an immediate requirement.  Expectations, on the other hand, should very much stem from recent past performance, and depend on your immediate situation – your today.  Second, make your expectations minimal and fluid. For me, this meant “show up, and try the best you can today”.

So towards the end of my training, I expected the least of myself and achieved the most.  I’d have a goal – 9 miles.  It would be nice if I made it 9 miles.  And then I’d lower my expectations to something so small, it would be hard NOT to achieve them.  I’d tell myself, all you have to do is get dressed, go out, and start.  Just move your feet.  There, just that.  And once I began to jog, I’d tell myself – you only have to do the next 0.5 miles.  And with each half mile, I’d evaluate how I felt.  Can I tackle the next 5 minutes?  Yes.  Alright then.


With a better mind-set, training felt better.

So that’s what I will try to remember to do in the face of the daunting IDEAL BLOG.  I will remember to set realistic expectations, and keep them fluid based on my circumstances today.  First – just write, just put something out there, every week, as well as you can.  Take photos – of anything, of everything, even when they’re poorly lit and crooked.  Get better, continue at it.  With time, learn the topics that you can’t stop talking about.  With time, meet the people who care about the same things as you do.  Show up, and do your best.  Revise, improve, keep at it.  Show up, and do your best.  Eventually, you’ll get there.

After finish with medal

After the half-marathon finish line: Tired, slightly hysterical, sore all over, but Frakking MADE IT!


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9 Responses to Seeking Balance: Setting Goals vs Expectations

  1. Anya says:

    I love your blog so much!!! It’s the only one I have the attention span to read. I’ve come across a few others that would *seem* to be promising, but they just don’t have the thoughtfulness, care, and dedication behind them. Or sometimes they just have glorious pics (ahem, jewelry!!!! vintage jewelry!!!! yes!!!!) but no intellectual content (boo).

    Anyway, I just wanted to say I loved this entry. And the pics!


  2. Brian says:

    Totally understand the paralyzing fear of achievement. When that happens, I try to externalize why I’m trying: for me, it’s much easier to strive for someone else’s benefit.

    I recently rediscovered Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about externalizing creativity, She recommends attributing creativity to an external force that possesses us in times of inspiration. That way, we don’t become burdened by the responsibility of creativity. I think the same idea can be applied to motivation for any long-term endeavor. I try really hard because I need to help this “spirit” that needs me. Sounds delusional, but it’s a useful mental trick.


    • Brian,
      Oooh, I LOVE that TED talk! It’s my favorite talk ever, and still feels useful – even though I first heard it 3,4 years ago? (I loved it so much that I went and read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – and then felt totally let down, lol. Am considering rereading it in 5 or so years in hopes that I might relate more to the content :))

      It’s so interesting to hear how you deal with the fear of achievement. I wonder why so many people experience it – I feel like I could trace my own to the way my parents raised me – so, a product of my culture. Except it seems like SO many people, regardless of when and where they grew up, also struggle with it. Makes me wonder whether it’s more a product of being a competitive species rather than the particular approaches of a time…


  3. Amy says:

    I really enjoy your blog as well. Very thoughtfully written and about topics I can relate to. You are one of three blogs that I’m actually keeping up with on maternity. Or at least attempting to keep up with!!


    • Thank you Amy 😀
      I’m always happy to see you here. 🙂

      Makes me curious – what two other blogs do you follow nowadays?

      How is your maternity going? Any vivid impressions, or anything unexpected?
      I’m a little over two months away, and am suddenly all ready and impatient to become a parent already. Except for all the scary sounding bits in the Birth & Baby’s First Year books 🙂 And can’t quite imagine life with a baby, so aren’t even trying.


      • Amy says:

        This is my second maternity and this one is soooo much more relaxing (as much as it can be) and smoother than my first. Partly b/c I have a much better idea of what to expect and partly b/c this lil boy is much less fussy (so far) than my first. I find that pregnancy saps my creative energies to nothing.
        When those energies returned after my first pregnancy I picked up sewing and quilting as a hobby instead of going right back into beading. One blog that taught me a lot on quilting was I’m not sewing at all right now but I tend to still check her blog out of habit. I also like to cook so the second blog is I think she’s witty and cute and I wish she’d come cook for me all the time. =)
        I’m actually finding time lately to pick up the beads and wire again. I have until the end of the week to decide if I should sign up for a couple of art shows this summer. It would be an insane commitment and I’m not sure if it’s a smart one. But I hate to take the entire year off of selling.
        I hope you are having a smooth pregnancy. Yes, it is pretty impossible to imagine how life will change. I imagine it changes differently for everyone. Prepare as much as you can and then just go with the flow of it all. Try and remember to enjoy the ride, even when it’s hard.


      • I’m glad this maternity is working out smoother for you!
        Thank you for the sewing blog link – this is actually perfect for me! My dad will turn 50 next year, and making him a throw/quilt is the only handmade gift I can think of that he’d enjoy and use… I was pretty terrified of starting though, because I’ve never really sewn before. I’m pretty sure this blog will make it easier to start 🙂

        Thank you for the cooking blog also! I’ve not come across it before. I’ve recently gotten hooked on using for recipe inspiration, and a friend of mine just recommended this one:

        For the art shows – they require you to really build up your inventory?
        Do you have any crafty friends who would be potentially up for splitting the display table with you in case you don’t have time/energy to prepare as much as you’d like for the show?
        Or, as an opposing alternative – would it possible not to sign up as an official vendor for the shows at first… but to attach yourself to another vendor closer to the date?

        Overall, shows sound… intense. We seem to have many in our area – mostly combined with farmer’s markets in terms of timing and location, and running on a weekly basis from spring to fall. When talking about them, the sellers mentions 10×10 tents, and tables and displays… and it sounds like a huge time and effort commitment.
        I’m planning to spend this summer season checking out the various shows – and maybe starting to participate in the fall or next year? *scary!*


  4. Amy says:

    Yes art shows can be a little intense. I spent a few years building up the booth supplies, the 10×10 tent, tables, display items etc. Last summer was my first summer actually doing real shows. I found that my flowers sell better at higher end fine craft/art shows, and not so much the farmers markets etc. People attending the fine art and craft shows are willing to pay for the work that I put into my flowers, where the farmers markets people are more looking for cheap.

    You have to enjoy the process of the show, the set up and tear down, applying and forking over money for the booth fee, it’s a lot of work for not a lot of pay off. The nicer shows have rules against sharing booths. I’m not too worried I should have enough inventory to get me through one. I found that my flowers sell better in person than on the internet, at least so far. Something about seeing the beads in person and feeling the weight of the flower. I think people tend to realize that it is something different and well made. I had a lot of fun with it last year so I’m excited to try and keep my groove for this year.

    Good luck quilting! Fabric can be as addicting as hammering metal!

    Thanks to the food blog link. I’m always looking for new recipe inspirations.


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